We call it ‘the harvest’ to tame its reality, but this is the kill; all blood, guts, and bone splayed out at our feet. Farm-to-table is charming until you have blood on your hands.
I don’t know if it was a POP! or a BANG! or a CRACK!, but the sound of the first gunshot uncorked a torrent of emotion in me. In the time it took me to walk from the old barn to the new barn, crying and gasping for air the whole way, they went down like dominoes.
One… two… three… four… each bullet taking the life of our pigs.
Today was the first pig harvest and, although we’ve seen it coming for a while, you can never fully prepare yourself for the first time. The morning was somber and we waited to feed them their final meal until it was almost time for the mobile slaughter unit to arrive. The pigs were happily eating breakfast when the beefy refrigerated box truck rolled up. The driver, a bald man with a stout belly and a kind smile, exited the truck with a .22 Magnum in his hands.
Holy crap. This is getting real.
His partner got out of the truck and shook my hand while putting on a pair of waterproof coveralls stained with blood around the cuffs. While my husband and I asked novice questions, they both put on tool belts dangling with chains and very sharp tools. The boss looked to me: We’re going to butcher them right here in the driveway if that’s ok with you. Yes, of course, we told them, whatever you need to do. With eleven more animals to dispatch after our pigs, the slaughter team didn’t have a ton of time for small talk. My husband led them to the entrance of the pen while I put my hands through the fence to give them one more back rub, one more goodbye. I shuffled away as he cocked the rifle, head hung with the heaviness of ending a life. This is the way of it, I thought. This is how bacon comes to be bacon, there is no other way. But still. It hurts to love a creature so much and also make the call for its ultimate demise. This is how we feed our family, friends, and customers. But this is also the middle ground of farm-to-table that people fail to discuss. We call it ‘the harvest’ to tame its reality, but this is the kill; all blood, guts, and bone splayed out at our feet. Farm-to-table is charming until you have blood on your hands.
I did not watch the kill, but my husband did. It was important to us to know for certain that their final moments were without struggle. A panicked pig can be like a freight train off the tracks so we hired a slaughter team known for their swiftness and accuracy. Each pig was shot in the head and dropped instantly. By the time the fourth one sensed the end of the first one, she had already peacefully submitted and was quickly dispatched. When I returned to the old barn, each pig had been hoisted out of the pen by a crane and laid out in a row. I approached gingerly, slowly digesting the scene before me; pools of blood by the feeder where they ate breakfast just 20 minutes earlier; the cracking of bone as the hooves were removed from the legs; and the matter-of-fact face of the butcher as he sharpened his cleaver. It was a lot to take in.
Over the next 45 minutes the pigs transformed from Beulah, Bitsy, Ally, and Abby into carcasses without hides, heads, or any of the recognizable features that made these pigs so unique. The gray and purple guts tumbled out effortlessly as each pig was unzipped. Their tiny brains fell out of their heads and we studied the thickness of their skulls. Their skins were ripped off their backs with the sound of Velcro and thrown into a barrel. An electric saw was drawn through each pig splitting her perfectly in half. Sharp steel hooks were threaded through each carcass while the crew boss hosed off the blood and collagen that welled up in the cracks of the gravel driveway. There they hung, all four of them, next to a cow that had been quartered just a few hours before. The doors of the box truck slammed as we thanked the crew for their swift and respectful service and they drove away to do it eleven more times.
People ask how we can do this. It is the way of things. Isn’t it so hard? Absolutely.
But the pigs pay the ultimate sacrifice by giving us their lives and we bear witness to that sacrifice to humble ourselves before the circle of life. We know that all the love, care, and nourishment we gave them will come back to us when they come to our table to feed our friends and our family; to celebrate a holiday or a Sunday morning breakfast. We will continue to raise pigs and have them humanely slaughtered on the farm. We will pay the emotional debt that comes with this line of work. If it ever stops stinging, if I stop feeling the weight of our animals’ sacrifice, then it’s time to quit. This may not be what I signed up for, but it is part of what it takes to be a strong and conscientious farmer. And that’s what I came here to do.
Janya Veranth raises Border Cheviot sheep, heritage Berkshire hogs, and a variety of laying hens with her family in Duvall, WA, northeast of Seattle. Redfeather Farm is Animal Welfare Approved and their passion is “to bring your family good food you can feel good about.” http://www.redfeatherfarm.org